Following the murders of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan; the political fallout from these events and amid threats by unionist leaders to crash the institutions, the British government appointed a panel to make a determination on the structure, role and purpose of proscribed organisations. Sinn Féin saw the panel as unnecessary.
It is thought that it will report within days. Whatever its conclusions Sinn Féin will not tolerate any undermining of the rights of citizens who vote for Sinn Féin.
The cynical exploitation by unionist political leaders, in particular Mike Nesbitt of the Ulster Unionist party, of the two Belfast murders has brought the political institutions in the north to the point of collapse. His antics and the reaction of the DUP, have eroded public confidence in the power sharing institutions. Mr. Nesbitt saw an opportunity to electioneer on this issue and has put nearly two decades of relative peace and political progress at risk in his desire to win more votes than the DUP.
His ability to do this is largely because no unionist political leader has ever positively embraced the Good Friday Agreement and championed its advantages for fear of being outflanked by the more extreme shades of unionism.
The behaviour of unionist leaders helps no one. On the contrary their damaging approach to resolving difficulties in the political process has created huge frustration among Sinn Féin activists, and the wider republican and nationalist community, who don’t believe that unionist leaders are serious about making politics work unless it is to their advantage.
In the weeks ahead there are major political challenges facing the current negotiations.
Firstly the British and Irish governments must honour their commitments. They have failed to do this thus far.
Secondly, the British government has to provide a viable, workable sustainable budget, which allows the Executive to deliver public services and proper protections for the most vulnerable in our society.
And lastly, the commitment to address legacy issues agreed in the Haass talks and in the Stormont House Agreement must be reflected in any final legislation produced by the British government. The current draft produced by the British government will not do – it is not acceptable.
Nationalists and republicans need persuaded that unionist leaders are genuinely committed to power sharing. The deliberately slow and damaging approach of unionist leaders to the Good Friday Agreement is no longer tolerable or acceptable.
After nearly 18 years of the Good Friday Agreement and eight years of a working Executive and Assembly, and all-island institutions, there are increasing numbers of citizens who seriously doubt the capacity of political unionism to ever share power in good faith. They are perplexed by the constantly negative and begrudging approach of the unionist parties.
Martin McGuinness summed it up well recently when he said; “Republicans share power with unionists because we want to. They share power with us because they have to.”
Unionist reluctance to work positively with nationalist and republicans; indeed the vitriol that often marks their public commentary has emerged in a number of recent examples. When she was appointed by Peter Robinson as temporary First Minister Arlene Foster set aside the commitments to promote equality contained in the Pledge of Office and the Code of Conduct. The DUP Minister said: “I have been placed there as a gatekeeper to make sure that Sinn Féin and the SDLP ministers don't take actions that will damage Northern Ireland and principally, let's be honest, that damage the unionist community."
And if there was any doubt as to her purpose: "If anybody knows me and indeed knows the Democratic Unionist Party they know that I'm not going to put at risk to the people of Northern Ireland the possibility that rogue Sinn Féin or renegade SDLP ministers are going to take decisions that will harm the community in Northern Ireland."
Last week Edwin Poots told viewers watching the BBC that he had to hold his nose when doing business with Sinn Féin.
All of this has its roots in our colonial history and the partition of the island.
The value of the union for the unionist landed aristocracy and business class – big house unionism – was that it guaranteed unionist domination of society. The unionist working class were persuaded that their ‘freedoms’, jobs, homes, superior social status all depended on the union. Job discrimination based on religion became a means of controlling the growing urban unionist working class.
So it was in the 19th century and the 20th century. As a result most skilled and semi-skilled jobs in all of the north’s businesses were held by unionists. Before partition but especially afterward discrimination in housing, the periodic use of pogroms and sectarian violence, and the withholding of any political power or influence from nationalists were regarded by unionism as necessary elements of maintaining their control.
The history books are full of quotes from unionist leaders boasting of the effectiveness of their domination of the north, its institutions and economy. The Orange state was in reality, and experience, a “Protestant state for a Protestant people”
Unionist leaders have never come to terms with any of this. None has ever apologised for or even acknowledged the role of political unionism in contributing to the conditions of conflict.
And so it is with the Good Friday Agreement. Unionist leaders see it as an aberration; as undemocratic – because it denies majority rule. It is unacceptable because it elevates equality and parity of esteem. And just as they object to the principle that there can be no hierarchy of victims so too would they deny citizens the right to vote for the party of their choice and to recognise the mandate that the exercise of that democratic choice provides.
Despite these difficulties Sinn Fein is not for walking away. We are not for giving up. Our responsibility is to insist that the Good Friday Agreement is implemented in full. And if unionist leaders cannot accept that then, though they probably have not considered this, their shenanigans are a huge argument in favour of ending partition.